Friday, February 26, 2010

Frigid Fridays

Frigid Friday - the Weekend Weather Report
for 26 Feb - 1 March 2010

Friday, 26 Feb: 50% chance of snow showers; high near 38*F, low near 26*F. East wind 16-22 mph with gusts to 36 mph. Total daytime snow accumulation 1-2".

Saturday, 27 Feb: 60% chance of snow showers; high near 34*F, low near 23*F. East wind 6-8 mph. New snow accumulation 1-3".

Sunday, 28 Feb: 50% chance of snow showers; high near 34*F, low near 21*F. North wind 5-7 mph.

Monday, 1 March: 30% chance of snow showers before 1 PM. High near 34*F, low near 15*F.

*** Weather is subject to change without notice ***

Current Conditions: We currently have 15-16" of snow. The snow is of the heavy, wet variety. Snowshoeing will be challenging and skiing will likely not be great for the first folks breaking trail. Those who follow will probably have an easier time of it.

After the Storm and Iggles

All through the dimly lit day yesterday, heavy flakes of snow plummeted to the ground. The temperature remained just above freezing, and the water content of the flakes was high. They seemed to melt upon contact with the ground, leaving little in the way of accumulation.

By 5:00 PM the precipitation had turned to rain. When I got home, I grabbed the shovel and pushed the sloppity slop and gloppity glop from the driveway and the road directly in front of it. It was an exercise in shovelling water.

Knowing that the rain was likely to continue, I bit the bullet: the roof would have to be raked. So I assembled the long handle of the roof rake and attacked the back of the house first. Fortunately, the heavy and sodden condition of the snow actually made it easy to remove from the roof, as slab after slab slid down to the ground. In record time the back was done and I moved to the front. This morning I was quite glad I had done it.

All through the night it rained, rounding the harsh angles of the plowed up snowbanks. By morning, the wind was in full swing, blowing the heavy grey clouds about and letting the sun peek through.

The town crew was out for a good portion of the night, making sure the roads didn't freeze and pushing back the snowbanks, each load no doubt weighing upwards of a ton. This morning found things very wet and only slightly frozen. Icy slush would soon melt again, but for now it was firm enough not to leave us soaked from our morning walk.

While coming down the highway, Toby suddenly went on alert. He pulled to the end of the leash and all his fur was on end. Surely something dangerous was just ahead!

It moved across the road in a hesitant tumble. Is it dangerous? Maybe it would provide a good chase!

How deflated he became when it turned out to be just a branch from a tree!

The excitement didn't end there, however. As I headed in to work, I noticed an enormous bird flapping ponderously in circles just north of the road. I pulled over to watch. Was it an eagle? I couldn't quite see any white on the head or tail, and by the time I finally got out the camera to take pictures, it had decided to exit stage left. If you can zoom in, however, you will see the raptor shape to the beak. I think it was an immature bald eagle.

Even higher, though, another bird soared. Its mission seemed much more leisurely; surely it was simply enjoying a ride on the wind.

This time, however, the white head and tail were visible, even at a great distance.

Two log trucks and several passenger vehicles passed me as I stood behind the driver's side door of my car, staring at the sky, camera in hand. I wonder what all those people were thinking as they sped by to various jobs and errands. No doubt wondering what the crazy woman was doing on the side of the road.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

News of Our Burial is Greatly Exaggerated

Things were a lot whiter this morning when all the trees
were totally blanketed with snow.

I don't know what the news folks are telling the rest of the world out there, but Newcomb is not buried under the preciptation of the current winter storm.

I woke this morning to about 5.5" of new snow. Yes, I had to shovel, if only to get the snowbank at the end of the driveway out of the way. The snow was of the heavy/wet variety, but not too bad.

It has been snowing/sleeting off and on during the day, but accumulation has been slight. The weather report is claiming 3-7 new inches during the day, but maybe most of that is still to come, because as of 3:23 PM (as I write this), we have had less than an inch of new stuff.

Total at the snowstick: 17-18".

When I get home, I should build a snowman. Maybe I'll build a snowdog to keep Toby company when he goes out to pee.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heat Wave

Monday (yesterday) was a glorious day. Even Newcomb hit the mid-40s temperature-wise. Unfortunately, I was out-of-town most of the day, either on the road or sitting at the eye doctor's. But, it was still light out when I got home, so I grabbed the camera and decided to see what was photographable in the yard.

Toby would've rather played. As you can see, he doesn't think too highly of photography:

First stop was the bird feeders. Yes, at last "someone" has finally decided to sample from the new feeder.

Actually, I've been watching the blue jays work away at this feeder for a couple weeks now. They don't use the perches, though -I suspect the perches are too small. Instead they cling to the branches of the tree and take stabs at the Bark Butter.

My yard beaver has been acting as a solar sink, absorbing the heat from the sun and melting the snow at its base. I wonder if the ants stay inside the beaver all winter, or if they go underground before the ground freezes. Hm....

Now, if one didn't know better, one might just think that this is a close-up of a liverwort. In fact, it is a close-up of a golden cedar. This tree is still a small shrub and has a place of honor in one of my flower beds. I have no idea how big it will eventually get, but at the rate it has been growing, I don't think I have to worry about it casting too big a shadow on the other plants any time soon.

Twenty points to anyone who can guess what this is:

Here's another clue - this is the loaded seed pod of the same plant:

Yes, it is a hollyhock. Isn't it amazing how strange things can look through a macro lens? I love hollyhock seed pods - probably my favorite, after milkweed pods. The seeds are all tucked together in a nice tight ring, like some kind of pastry or coffee cake.

Okay, how about this one:

It's a native plant, but one I don't see very often. In fact, the only place I've seen it in almost twenty years is in my garden where I planted it.

Here it is again, but this time with the flower head still in tact:

This is New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis). I'm constantly trying to photograph the thing, but it seems that every time I try the wind starts to blow and I never get an unblurry shot. This included yesterday...had a devil of a time trying to capture an image. The flowers are a beautiful dark purple, and the plant grows over five feet tall. In fact, it is taller than I - so it's gotta' be at least five-and-a-half feet tall. According to Lawrence Newcomb, ironweeds can reach up to ten feet in height!

I love this shot. Any guesses?

It looks to me like some kind of exotic orchid, but in fact it is just the empty seed pod of a daylily. Kind of neat, though, don't you think?

As mentioned before, the birds are ignoring the sunflower seeds this year. Still, they make for a nice photograph:

Here we have a pretty good close-up of a nifty plant that is starting to take over some of my gardens: Verbascum.

Verbascum is in the same family as mulleins. In fact, they are in the same genus (Verbascum). Mulleins are not native, although they have naturalized pretty darn well and many of our native birds feast on their tiny seeds. This Verbascum has been featured on my blog in the past, with its lovely colorful flowers - scroll down past the hollyhocks here.

Today we woke to fresh snow - I actually had to shovel the driveway (well, it was only a couple inches, so I didn't really HAVE to shovel, but I felt like I should - it is winter after all). More is on the way. In fact, the weather gurus are forecasting a winter storm watch for later today through tomorrow morning. Up to six whole inches. Those of you in the DC/Maryland/PA belt, with your 56" of snow, will likely laugh at our measley 6", but that will almost double what we've had all month! Things are in a state of drought up here. Total new moisture for February so far: 0.31". That's zero-point-three-one...hardly any moisture at all. Dry dry dry. Either we're gonna get nailed later on, or we will be suffering another dry year. Only time will tell.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Change of Pace

All the grey and brown and white, while beautiful in their own right, have started to get me down. So, to brighten things up a bit, I've changed the header photo. This is Moxham Pond, taken this fall while on a paddle and bog slog with my friend Evelyn.

Moxham Pond is privately owned. While you can see it from the road, it isn't accesible without permission. On the one hand this is great, for it affords some protection to the wonderful bog on the far side of the pond. On the other hand, it means I can't go visit whenever I want. It's a lovely treasure, and the folks who own it know it.

Frigid Fridays - The Weekend Weather

Frigid Fridays - The Weekend Weather Report
19 - 22 February 2010

Friday, 19 Feb.: 60% chance snow showers; 1-2" accumulation. High near 29*F, low near 19*F. West wind ~10 mph with gusts to 29 mph.

Saturday, 20 Feb.: 20% chance of snow showers with less than an inch accumulation. High near 32*F, low near 17 *F. West wind 5-7 mph with gusts to 23 mph.

Sunday, 21 Feb.: 20% chance of snow showers. HIgh near 31*F, low near 13*F. NW wind ~6 mph with gusts to 22 mph.

Monday, 22 Feb.: Mostly sunny; high near 32*F and low near 16*F.

*** Weather is subject to change without notice. ***
Current conditions at Newcomb VIC: As you can see in the photo above, we have about a foot of snow. This is mostly old, packed snow, with about an inch of new powder on top as of Friday morning. Skiing should be good and fast. Snowshoeing should be fair.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Brief Note

Just in case folks were wondering, I didn't fall off the face of the earth. I've been home, sick as can be. Probably a variation of the flu-bug. But, I'm back at work now, and once I catch up on things, I will be posting once more.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Homemade Birdfeeder

I love this feeder. This bird feeder was a gift this Christmas from my mom. She got it at a local (to her) craft fair.

Apparently the woman who made it was just trying to find something to do with the metal bottlecaps she had from juice (or tea) bottles. She cut the triangle from a piece of scrap wood, nailed the caps to it and added a few dowels for perches. A quick paint job, a piece of string, and voila! I love it when people use scraps and create something totally useful!

I put this out for the first time this morning. I haven't had anything to put on the caps for food, but yesterday I purchased some peanut butter spread:

Normally I don't promote these things because they are pretty expensive. One could easily make up a batch for a fraction of the cost (it's just rendered beef suet, peanut butter, and I think cornmeal), but I was feeling lazy and just bought the tub. It's pretty soft (like peanut butter - imagine that) and spreads easily.

None of the birds flocked to it this morning before I left for work. I'll check it out when I get home tonight (it'll still be light!) and see if anyone was brave enough to approach this new and strange thing hanging in the tree.

Search for the Snowshoe Hare

Sunday I decided I wanted to try and find a snowshoe hare, so I headed to a brushy overgrown area where I'd seen the tail end of a hare the weekend before. Logic suggested that if the hare was there a week ago, this was possibly its territory and I'd have a shot of seeing it again.

Browse was heavy in the area. Too high above the snow for hares; must be deer.

This bed was waaay too big for a hare - I could've curled up in it. White-tail deer have been bedding down beneath the conifer boughs.

Nice pile of scats - but too oval for hare, and pointy on one end. Once again, deer.

Further in the trees, we came across some great grouse tracks! (We? Toby, of course, was with me.) Look at how fat those toe prints are! Great evidence of the flaps, or scales, that this bird grows on the sides of each toe to increase its foot size, an adaptation for easier winter travel on the snow. Come spring these scales will have worn off, only to be replaced next fall.

We found some deer hair. The hairs are sheared at the bottom. Uh-oh...did someone become a feast for someone else?

Near the hair was this brown lump. I scuffed it up from the snow with the toe of my boot because it looked interesting. There were hairs stuck to it. It had an interesting texture. Could it be a scat? It's a large scat, if that's what it is (it was about the size of my hand). Might be the animal had rather liquid stools that day. Maybe it ate part of the deer and the food didn't agree with it's digestion? There were no predator tracks around...this was probably an old feeding site.

Mouse tracks - we found some of those:

And there were plenty of snowshoe hare tracks,

but not a snowshoe hare to be found. And we can't blame the dog, because he was with me the week before when I saw the hare. I know what it was...the hares all knew I had my camera with me and they went into hiding. It never fails.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Another One Bites the Dust

This beautiful purple finch feather greeted me in the parking lot this morning. It's a bit rumpled, but otherwise seemed to be in pretty good shape.

I brought it inside to photograph, but found that the color was just not coming out, so I took it out to the back deck for some natural lighting. This is a shot of the back side of the feather,

which is almost as colorful as the front side:

But do you see the tip of the quill there? Here's a closer look at the quill tip - not great, but the best I could get (my camera and macro lens are at home today):

This is a very interesting find. This tells us that this bird didn't just lose a feather as it was flapping overhead. Nope - this bird was likely someone's dinner last night.

So, I've been doing a bit of research into how one determines what predator got this bird. It's not as easy as you might think. Here's what I've found out so far.

If a predatory bird, say a sharpshin hawk, caught this finch and ate it, it would've plucked the feathers out, extracting them from the finch's body with the quill more or less intact. Sometimes, however, raptors will use their toes to grasp the feather (over one toe, under the next, over the third) and pull it out that way. The feather will then have a bend where the toes grabbed it.

My feather has neither an intact quill nor a crimp in the quill shaft, so odds are it was not taken out by another bird. That means it must've been a mammal. To quote Mark Elbroch, "If the tip of the shaft next to the body has been cut, a mammal is responsible." what mammal could it be? We have to take several factors into account here, such as species of bird (and thus size of bird), where the bird hangs out (on the ground, up high in a tree), where the feather was found, how many feathers were found, what pattern the feathers formed (a circle, a clump), if the carcass present, etc. In my case, it is a single purple finch feather, found in a parking lot, and no other evidence around.

Purple finches are perching birds, so they are most likely to be up in the trees. What predator could've taken a bird from a tree? Not likely a canine. A raptor, certainly, but we already eliminated this option. A weasel? I know martens and fishers will climb trees, and I suppose the long- and short-tailed weasels will, too, since they have been spotted on things like deer rib cages that are hung in trees for the birds.

Could this finch have been on the ground for some reason? It's possible. That opens up the predator possibilities; now canines could be an option.
Purple finches are not terribly large birds. Would a coyote try to catch one? Probably not - it would likely be a difficult catch for a coyote, and not enough bang for the buck, so to speak. A fox, however, might easily go for a small bird on the ground. A finch would maybe yield as much substance as a mouse. Weasels, too, would be hunting for anything on the ground. A finch would be a good catch for a long- or short-tailed weasel.

So now we look at how this feather was broken. With canine kills, you are most likely to find feathers cut off in clumps. Canines use their back teeth (carnassial) to do this, teeth that are designed to shear food into pieces they can manage. As you can imagine, if the feathers are worked towards the back of the mouth, sticking out the side, they are going to get coated with a fair bit of saliva where the mouth, tongue and lips are working at the quills. Therefore, you are likely to find the lower part of the feather's vane clumped together with spit. Canines will also pluck feathers, removing them with their quills intact.

Since I didn't find a clump of feathers, and the vane is not saliva-coated, we can probably eliminate canines from the list of suspects.
What about weasels? Here's what Mark Elbroch has to say about weasels defeathering birds: "Weasels also shear off sections of feathers, but the length of the shear will be short, and if continued, it will vary in angle with each bite." He continues, "...the overall appearance of the sheared edged may be ragged."

On page 294 of Elbroch's Bird Tracks and Sign, there's an illustration of feather damage caused by various predators. The topmost illustration (A) is of junco feathers that a long-tailed weasel removed. The quill damage sure looks like what we see on the purple finch feather above.

Final conclusion: I suspect a weasel, probably long-tailed since they are the most common around here, had a nice finchy snack last night.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Death of a Goldfinch

Yesterday we found this deceased American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) on the back deck. Did it hit the window? Did it have sudden heart failure and drop out of the sky? The answer has not been forthcoming. Still, not one to let any deceased thing pass by unnoticed, I brought it in and snapped a few photos. While one can be saddened by the death of a fellow traveller on this good earth, such events allow us to take a good close look at those we usually only encounter at a distance.

Based on the still rather olive-drab coloring of the feathers, we believe this is a female. Already the males are starting to look a bit brighter.

The double white wing bars are usually quite visible, especially on the males when they are in their breeding plumage. The rest of the wing is a beautiful black, which contrasts stunningly with the male's brilliant lemon yellow feathers. Even on the duller females, the wings are rather lovely.

A buffy-grey belly also suggests that this is a female. In the winter her belly is described as a "dirty white" - almost as if she hadn't boiled her linens in quite some time.

I happen to find the tail to be quite striking. Unlike many songbirds with flat or rounded tails, the goldfinch has an almost swallow-like tail.

This has been a goldfinch winter in Newcomb, kind of like my first winter here was. It seems somewhat appropriate, seeing as how this may be my last winter here.

The trees at home are filled with goldfinches off and on throughout the day. They flit from tree to feeder to ground to tree, no doubt making the rounds of all the feeders in the neighborhood. While the bird feeding stores and books encourage bird feeding enthusiasts to purchase nyjer for these small finches, you will find that they just as happily consume the cheaper black oil sunflower seeds. In fact, I find they eat more sunflower seeds than least at my home.
Goldfinches, also known as wild canaries, are generally birds of open areas: weedy fields, orchards, roadsides, backyards (and front yards), farmer's fields. No doubt this is because these areas support their favorite food, the seeds of "weedy" plants such as thistles, mullein, teasels, and asters. While seeds make up the majority of the goldfinch's diet, it also eats insects (especially good for rapidly growing nestlings), tree buds, maple sap, and berries. Overall, however, this bird is designed to be a seed eater. It's conical bill, and super flexible feet enable it to get seeds from sources other birds can't access. It is not uncommon to see a goldfinch hanging upside down on a flower or bird feeder, or even a hummingbird feeder as it sips water from the ant trap.
I remember as a kid watching as half the dandelions in the yard suddenly took wing and disappeared - goldfinches happily eat dandelion seeds. It was then, too, that I learned that these cheery little birds are one of the latest nesters we have - the male doesn't begin his courtship routine until late July. This is probably because, as seed eaters, food sources are not as abundant in the spring. Seeds are not only necessary for sating the appetites of hungry nestlings, but the down of many summer plants, like thistle, milkweed and cattails, is used to line the cup-like nests. An interesting factoid I just found out about goldfinch nests is that they are so tightly woven that they can actually hold water! As you can imagine, this could be a death knell for nestlings if the weather brings heavy rain storms, but even so, it is impressive.
You can always tell if you have a flock of goldfinches in the neighborhood for they fly with a dipping, undulating motion. And as they fly they sound like they are calling "potato chip, potato chip, potato chip."
New Jersey claims the goldfinch as its state bird. Could anyone ask for a more cheerful mascot?

Frigid Fridays

The Weekend Weather Report for
5 February - 8 February 2010

Friday, 5 Feb.: Mostly cloudy with increasing sunshine as the day progresses. High near 26*F, low around 0*F. Calm winds becoming SW around 5 mph.

Saturday, 6 Feb.: Mostly sunny, with a high near 23*F and a low near -4*F. Calm wind becoming east between 4 and 7 mph.

Sunday, 7 Feb.: Mostly sunny, with a high near 16*F and a low near -5*F.

Monday, 8 Feb.: Partly sunny, with a high near 17*F and a low near -3*F.

*** The weather is subject to change without notice. ***

We currently have about a foot of snow. Of this, the top inch and a half or so is new fluff (as of Thursday), which is on top of a good solid base. Great conditions for animal tracking, good for snowshoeing, fair for skiing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Do Your Part for Avian Science

Next weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), when thousands of people across North America (and Hawaii) will be watching for feathered visitors in their yards, at nature centers, and along trails and roadways.

You, too, can be part of this crowd!

All you need is a minimum of 15 minutes. You can do it one day or all four. Just sit by your window and count how many birds you see. You'll also want to take note of what species they are. Then you go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's GBBC webpage and enter your data. It's as easy as that.

Want to learn more? Then visit and check it out.

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Winter Ramblings

Alrighty - I'm back on the scene here. Busy days - had a program with a garden club first thing in the morning my first day back - had to come in early to get the jeep and drive to the club's meeting (about an hour away). Today we had our first school group of the winter in for our tracking and snowshoeing program - great kids. So, at long last, I have a moment to get some stuff on the blog.

For lack of anything exciting, here are just some random shots from various walks while I was "on vacation."

First up, we have Ray's snowman, all completed. This was before all the wind and rain hit, so he's looking pretty good still.

Down at the pump house on the Hudson River, the mice had been very active. Now, admittedly, this could've all been the work of one industrious mouse. It had been over a week since we had had any snow, so these tracks could be the accumulated trips of several days/nights.

My friend Pat asked me to come by her house to identify some mystery tracks over the weekend. They turned out to be from the neighbor's dog. But, I also got a tour of the property to look at other tracks. Fox and birds dominated, but they also have a marten that visits regularly. Why? Here's the answer:

Hanging your turkey carcass outside is a great way to attract weasels and birds. Here's a chickadee enjoying a late morning snack:

After checking out the scene at Pat's, Toby and I went for a walk down along the Hudson. This portion is not a section I visit too often. Here we have the view downstream from the bridge. Lots of rushing water over frozen rocks.

Looking upstream from the bridge, things are a lot calmer. The ice is tempting to walk on, but I'm not quite that stupid - thin spots could be almost anywhere above that moving water.

The town has put a snowmobile trail along the river at this point (to the right side of the water in the above photo). I didn't hear any machines out there, so Toby and I walked down the snowmobile trail. I know that beavers, deer, moose, et al have all travelled this corridor, so I was hoping for some good finds. The first (and best) find was this lovely grouse feather:

Right after I snapped the photo, I heard a grouse take flight in the trees behind me. Dang! I was hopeful that I might see another one, but no such luck.

The buds on the speckled alder were swollen and fuzzy. Maybe the very mild weather we had early last week gave them some hopeful thoughts that spring was on the way. These were surely dashed when the temps plummeted several degrees below zero a couple days later.

Are these icy shelf fungi? Nope, just icy shelves! I suspect that the water from all the rain last week brought the stream level up, froze, and then the liquid drained out into the river leaving the ice high and dry.

We walked most of the way down the trail, but I could feel the wind picking up at our backs, so I knew we had better turn around soon. When we did, it was face-first into an increasing gale, and I didn't have a hat with me (who knew we'd go for a walk here?). Much of the trail is out in the open along the river, so getting back to the trees and seeing this (photo below) was a very welcome sight!

On my way back from the garden club's meeting yesterday, I stopped at a small wetland along Butternut Flats, a short stretch of road just south of Pottersville. It was a beautiful morning and there were some interesting things in the wetland, like this old nest that has seen better days:

What really caught my eye was all these raised ice shelves:

The wetland was filled with them:

I suspect their existence is the result of the same rain that made the ones I found along the river last week.

And finally, our special visitor from yesterday:

This sleepy barred owl put in an appearance just off our back deck and was here off and on most of the day. Apparently it was here for a while yesterday, too. It's probably scoping out the mouse (and squirrel?) situation at the bird feeders.

So there you are - a quick fix from the Adirondacks. Enjoy!